From the roar of the stadium stands to the chaos of the sandlot, five stories of triumph, despair and head-on soccer collisions.
By Danny Bowes
There is a theory, popular among certain vaguely annoying academics, that the purest art is created by those who don’t know what they’re doing. If that’s true, then my third-grade soccer team could qualify as art. It never would have been what it was if any of us had known anything about soccer — or if I had been the least bit sane.
In the late 1980s, Park Slope, Brooklyn, was split between middle class families priced out of Manhattan and the Irish Catholics and Latin Americans who had been living there for decades. Between them was a gap that could be bridged only one way: intramural soccer. I joined up, despite knowing nothing about the sport but what I’d gleaned from the movies, primarily “Victory,” John Huston’s 1981 drama about a team of POWs who play their way to freedom. It featured an array of real-life stars, foremost among them the legendary Brazilian number 10, Pelé. As impressive as Pelé was, it was his goalkeeper, played by Sylvester Stallone, who inspired my game. He was a bull in a china shop, an underdog who had to use guile and brute force to keep up with more talented players, and I followed his example.
I am not, and never have been, a natural athlete. I’ve always been large and slow and not always possessed of the finest motor skills. In playing sports, my best assets have always been a considerable amount of raw strength, refined brainpower and a singular lack of inhibition about bending rules. I could neither pass nor shoot nor run, but I was able to craft a rudimentary strategy. While other teams let their players run in a clump around the ball so every kid could have a shot on goal, I suggested we leave two players behind in defense. Our coach agreed that a defensive approach would work, and happily adopted my suggestion. By halftime of our first game we were already notorious for dirty play and negative tactics, which left our jerseys muddy and our opponents covered in bruises and unable to get anywhere near the goal, let alone score.
Towards the end of the season, we came up against the jewel of the league, a team coached by a neighborhood figure whom I’ll call Senior, a pathologically competitive man with a tremendous ’80s mustache who coached every youth sport available. He was possessed of sufficient sports knowledge and ineffable coach-ness that his teams invariably won the league, and often with undefeated records. I call him Senior because of his son, Junior, a reasonably gifted athlete who, with his dad’s relentless prodding, was a force to be reckoned with on his father’s teams. Although he could have coasted on his son’s talent — Junior was one of the only kids in the league who could dribble and shoot — Senior took things too seriously for that, with passing drills and handshakes and all the stuff my team didn’t have time for. A few pointed pre-game jabs at our artless, dirty play and our side was ready for war.
Senior had his team attacking from the opening whistle, hoping to keep us on our back foot with their tactical and athletic superiority. But my fellow fullback and I parked ourselves right in front of goal, determined that our keeper not have to make even one save all game. Any shot that came anywhere near, I’d clear to midfield. I took headers while wearing glasses. I was possessed.
Toward the end of the game, everyone but me was forward trying to break the 0-0 tie when Junior cut loose on a breakaway. There was no one to stop him but me — sweaty, caked with grass and mud, my glasses crooked, and the feeling in my left hand gone. As Junior drew closer, dribbling with surprising grace, I was determined that he would not score.
What happened next nearly started a riot. Junior tried this move that was a combination of a basketball up-fake (the kind Larry Bird pulled off so well, one of which I’m sure Senior had Junior watch hours of video) and Pelé-esque dribbling magic. I zoomed in on the ball, not caring whether I stopped it with my face, as long as it was going the other way from our goal when I was done.
Because Junior went high and I went low, he ended up flipping over my shoulder and flying through the air before crashing right in front of our goal, and I ended up with the ball. Our forwards raced upfield and I booted the ball inelegantly in their general direction. It accidentally landed right in their stride, and with three of them against the other team’s keeper, we scored the winning goal.
While Senior turned purple and fulminated on the sidelines, Junior gently picked himself up off the grass, rejecting my offer of a hand. “You motherfucker,” he said, less angry than embarrassed by his dad’s tantrum.
“Hey, it’s all in the game,” I said with a shrug. Junior did not take this well, but rather than go flying through the air again, he jogged over to get yelled at by his dad for losing.
After the season, concerned parents decided that soccer, at least as played by me, was too dangerous to continue, and I retired from the sport. But for that one year, I was an unabashed, exultant asshole, stomping the piss out of rich kids, and making outsider art from the ugly side of the beautiful game.
Danny Bowes is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Premiere, The Atlantic, Yahoo! Movies, The Dissolve, Tor.com, Indiewire and RogerEbert.com. His personal website is bydannybowes.com.
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Final Mica and Final Mare
By Holly Wendt
Last May, while walking along the eastern edge of Sibiu’s medieval walls, I saw the first VSB scrawled in green spray paint on a nearby building. I was in Romania to teach a short course on American literature and culture to local university students, and every day offered a new lens on the overlap of familiar and strange. Romania has enough commonalities with Spanish that reading menus and signs was simple enough, but the pronunciation of a wealth of diacritical marks — breves and carons and hooks — meant spoken language was often a mystery that my own stubbornness made impossible to solve. Why ask when I could try to tease it out myself?
But the green VSB didn’t decode, even though it was everywhere, at eye level, with no flourishes, no real artistry. It wasn’t until I saw another wall reading Voinţa Hooligans Sibiu that it made sense as a reference to the local professional soccer team. Though the work of a few recognizable street artists recurred throughout the city, the Voinţa Sibiu work seemed done by multiple hands, always in the same shade of green. Still, for all of the tags, the team itself is no more.
CSU Voinţa Sibiu was founded in 2007, and in only four short years, it achieved promotion from the fourth league to the first, playing one full season in Romanian top flight before folding under the weight of financial crisis. Whether the graffiti was done in support of the team or in protest of its folding, the paint was holding up well against the frequent rain, and nothing suggested the collapse had anything to do with local indifference to the sport.
All over the city, small, fenced-in salas — a generic term for spaces or rooms — hosted lunchtime soccer matches, and schoolchildren crowded up against the chain-link to watch players kick a ball across unforgiving Astroturf. Despite a lack of real uniforms — one team’s keeper wore his jeans, dark blue and starched stiff — the play was deadly serious. Two officials patrolled the touchlines, and one loped through the center of the field with the playing pack. I stood and watched, too, keeping my curiosities to myself and knowing I shouldn’t.
Even at the busy close of term, Lucian Blaga University’s Student Sport group hosted an indoor, five-man tournament involving six teams from schools all over Romania. The tournament lasted from Wednesday to Friday, and the championship games would be followed by an exhibition match starring former Romanian football greats Miodrag Belodedici, Jean Vlădoiu and Viorel Moldovan.
The tournament was held in Sala Transilvania, very close to Stadionul Municipal, the municipal stadium that had housed CSU Voinţa Sibiu’s brief run. I arrived in time for the final mica — the small final, or bronze medal round — and I decided to stay for the final mare, the big final, or gold medal round. Sala Transilvania is a sports complex, holding not only the tournament space, which was a basketball court with stadium seating, but also a general gym with free weights, space for various martial arts and fitness classes, and a café so one could have a beer after working out.
Sala is a rather commonly used term, and in Sibiu, it applies to everything from venues for music and theatre to those outdoor, fenced-in, short soccer fields. In the tournament, another connection revealed itself: these five-to-a-side matches were high drama.
Târgu Mureș defeated Bucharest for bronze and Sibiu beat Iaşi for gold as I struggled to understand this call or that, the explanations of the indoor rules. The court echoed with hollow thumps of kneecaps and elbows, the squeak of sneakers and bare flesh sliding on wood. Attempts to sell a trip or shove were more costly than the same theatrics on grass. During timeouts, players picked at the rolled skin on their forearms and shins. It ached to watch.
The keepers played as though the cages were a full twenty-four feet rather than only slightly longer than their wingspans. They caught shoulder-high shots with full-fledged dives, bodies outstretched and crashing hard. The tight bounds of the court turned the contest charming and ugly by turns: After the game-winning save in the semifinal match, one fan vaulted the bottom row of seats to kiss the Mureș keeper, an effusive smack! I know I couldn’t hear it but still swear I did. Half an hour earlier, a player disagreed with a call and actually swung his fist at one of the officials. The announcer said something I couldn’t follow, and I lost track of whether the player in his numberless t-shirt ever came back onto the court.
After the final mare, as the medals were handed out and more people trickled into the space, an older woman and a young girl in a karate gi stepped into a nearby row and stood silently for a moment. The woman asked what contest was being awarded. Barely reacting to the news that the “home” team had won the highest honor, she only asked a second question: Who were the older men in tracksuits making their way onto the floor and stretching? I said they were former Romanian stars, and they were about to play an exhibition match. She regarded the filling seats, pulled a small bag of pretzels from her purse and settled in. Her granddaughter did the same, taking a simple question’s simple answer and unpacking it into pleasure.
Holly M. Wendt teaches writing and literature, and her prose has appeared in Memorious, Classical Magazine, Gray’s Sporting Journal and elsewhere. She is the recipient of writing fellowships from the Jentel Foundation and the American Antiquarian Society.
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A Dusty Journal and a Ticket to History
By Noah Rosenberg
In October 1982, the month before I was born, my grandfather, a part-time civil rights activist and full-time market researcher, flew to South Africa on business. He was struck by its jagged mountains, endless plains and spectacular cities, calling it “the most beautiful country I have ever seen.”
He was also horrified. The agony of Apartheid, the brutal, government-sponsored system of racial segregation, made my grandpa’s activism in the racially loose New York suburbs look like child’s play. At home, he partnered with blacks to expose racial discrimination in the housing market and, when successful, he’d get a door slammed in his face or a threat lobbed his way; when a South African activist overstepped her bounds, her house might get firebombed.
“I made my abhorrence known to one and all,” my grandfather, Bob Schreiber, wrote of his experience in South Africa, in a typewritten journal that was handed to me the day I arrived in Johannesburg to report on the 2010 FIFA World Cup. “At the professional meeting I went to, I sat with the Blacks and I danced with every Black woman in the place.”
I was lying in bed, in a distant relative’s home, perhaps in the same bedroom my grandfather had stayed in, reading his impressions of South Africa as I was just beginning to form my own. My grandpa had died when I was a teenager, with little warning, and this yellowing stack of papers brought about one of the closest intellectual and emotional connections I had ever felt to him.
That a global commercial extravaganza like the World Cup had chosen South Africa ostensibly meant the country had progressed light years since the era following my grandpa’s trip, when international sanctions had nearly crippled the economy. When he wished to witness the devastation in Soweto, the bleak Southwestern Townships that had come to symbolize the plight of evicted minority South Africans and, more broadly, the world’s oppressed, police stopped his vehicle and demanded his illicitly obtained government paperwork. “The police threw the passes of [my guide] and our driver into a ditch and made them crawl into it to retrieve the passes,” my grandpa wrote.
Nearly three decades later, when my editor called me on my second day in South Africa with an assignment to cover a potentially violent anti-government protest in Soweto, and suggested I “wear several layers in case of rubber bullets,” visions of the deadly 1976 Soweto Uprising overcame me. But far from 20,000 student marchers demanding rights and, ultimately, 176 dead at the hands of police, I found myself among a cheerful clan of twenty, singing and carrying signs.
My grandfather marveled at the squalor, at the “police stations everywhere, surrounded by barbed wire and search lights,” at the absence of water, electricity and places to shop aside from one meagerly-stocked store called Black Chain. Twenty-eight years later, I picked up supplies in Soweto’s shopping malls.
“But all agreed that an uprising is coming, and coming soon!” my grandpa concluded at the end of his journal entry, predicting, accurately, that it would be a bloody one. “Sometime within the decade,” he wrote, “the South African dilemma will be the focus of the world’s attention.”
And indeed it was. Nelson Mandela walked out of prison eight years later, in 1990, and the fall of Apartheid soon followed. And so I could feel the history in the air when a friend and I scored last-minute tickets to the opening match of the 2010 World Cup, to be held in Soweto in the gleaming new Soccer City stadium, featuring the home team against Mexico.
The afternoon of the match, my friend Drew slowly piloted his 1981 Honda through the same winding Soweto streets on which my grandfather had driven. We were at a near standstill for miles but a traffic jam had never felt so unifying. Blacks and whites sang and danced and hugged in the streets, while canary yellow vuvuzela horns provided a pleasantly mind-numbing backdrop. All the while, the Soccer City stadium loomed in the distance, its bejeweled exterior shimmering amid the brown earth and corrugated roofs like some futuristic beacon of hope that had finally arrived.
I had just climbed back into the passenger seat, out of breath from jumping and chanting in the traffic, when Drew leaned into me, above the noise, and shouted, “Dude, hand me my ticket so I can take a photo!” Neither of us could believe our good fortune. This was an experience we’d be writing about in our own journals and leaving to our own grandchildren to read someday.
But when I reached into my pocket, all I felt was lint. The merriment unfolding around us, with us, suddenly turned into sheer chaos and horror. I dove under our car to see if I had dropped the tickets there, sprinted frantically up and down the surrounding quarter-mile stretch of road, peered into a ditch — the same one my grandfather’s driver and guide had been forced to crawl down? Nothing. Everyone around me was a suspect in the theft of our coveted $500 tickets.
Finally, we arrived at the stadium, crestfallen. The clerks were no help, nor were their managers and managers’ managers. We needed actual tickets. Ceremonial fighter jets streaked the sky, the crowd roared, and we were stuck outside. History was happening and we weren’t even on the sidelines, we were out in the street. The worst part was we knew we were the lucky ones.
Too many in Soweto, in South Africa, still lived in horrific conditions while a $440 million World Cup stadium had risen up around them, and wealthy whites continued to hide from them in mansions wrapped in electric fences.
My grandpa had vomited at the filth in the townships, the same filth I was sent to document so many years later.
Drew and I, on the other hand, merely had to make a few panicked phone calls and plead with the cops until, finally, we were again on the right side of history. A distant relative of mine came down from his luxury skybox to greet us — the same relative who was on the World Cup Organizing Committee and had sold us the tickets — and we made it inside. We missed performances by Shakira and maybe R. Kelly, but we saw the kickoff, lost our voices with the rest of the crowd, and wanted to believe this was the start of something different for South Africa.
And for one month in 2010, at least, for those privileged enough to take part, it really was.
Noah Rosenberg is Narratively’s Founder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief. He has been a regular contributor to The New York Times, and his writing, photography, and documentary film work have also been published by The Wall Street Journal, GQ, Salon and New York magazine, among other outlets.
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By Heidi Raykeil
“Go! Get outta here! You’re going to be late.”
It was my husband who literally pushed me out the door and back into soccer, twenty odd years after dropping it cold at fourteen, after playing almost every day of my life since Kindergarten. I think he saw me losing myself to new motherhood, slipping into my daughter’s needs like comfy old gray sweats worn day after day. Despite the hiatus, and being dreadfully out of shape, my body instantly remembered: movement, sensation, the clarity of adrenaline, the thrill of having a pulse of my own. When one of my husband’s friends asked why I gave up soccer in the first place, I joked that I couldn’t stand the soccer moms. But the truth is much murkier.
Let me confess — I am a soccer mom. I have the Volvo (never mind that it’s an old clunker), the orange slices (never mind that they are not always organic), and the cleats taking over the front room (never mind that half of them are my own). Growing up, I envied, then resented, the soccer moms of the other girls on my team. Later, of course, I would hear of their depressions, their divorces, their affairs and closeted lives. But at the time, they seemed perfect to me. And while I pretended to hate them, what I really wanted was my own mom to give in to domestic motherhood as easily. I wanted her to join the ranks of indistinguishable beige overcoats clucking on the sideline, not sit in our ancient yellow station wagon working at halftime. I wanted her to choose that subdued life, not follow her own loud one.
In the years before I quit playing, soccer was my everything, my steady BFF. It let me outrun girl gossip, shove aside insecurity and juke the subtle and not-so-subtle new rules I was learning about being female: don’t be too smart, don’t run faster than the boys, be invisible (except to boys). On the pitch each week, breathing the crisp autumn air, or trudging mud-caked feet through wet puddles, it was okay for me to be fierce and spirited, to fight hard for something, to yell for the ball. In short, to take up space in the world.
My own daughter was in third grade by the time she asked to play soccer. Rather than being elated I found myself worrying. What if she wasn’t good enough? What if she got hurt? What about…ack…the soccer moms? As it turns out, the soccer moms (and dads) on my daughter’s team are quite nice. They are especially nice since having suckered me into taking over as coach of the U-10 Soccer Sisters. There is not one kind of car they drive, not one jacket they have in common. They forget snacks, they bring junk food, they make homemade cupcakes. They yell at the ref, they yell at me, they ignore the game completely. And they somehow make it to practice, despite hectic schedules and the near-constant fall rain. They do it for the same reason my own mom managed it: Because they want what’s best for their daughters.
Another confession: The real reason I quit playing soccer was not the soccer moms. It was that I no longer knew how to hold my ground. As I grew and developed, the game got more physical while I got less so. “Use your body!” my coach yelled from the sidelines, but I barely felt like it was my body anymore. “Protect your space!” he demanded, but what is “your space” when inside you feel mostly invisible? “Call for the ball!” he coached, while I stood in front of the goal, wide open. But somehow I had lost my voice.
Our last practice, I was teaching the girls to chest trap. It was a silly practice, with lots of embarrassed giggles. Because they are only nine and ten, it would have been easy for me to pretend I didn’t notice that several girls has already started developing. As a mom I would prefer to think that they’re not. But that’s not why I’m there every Wednesday and Saturday, going hoarse from yelling. I’m not there to show them what I think they should be. I’m there to see them as they really are, and remind them of the power in that.
Most likely none of the girls I coach will turn out to be a professional soccer player. Most won’t even play in college — if they go. Some will give it up early, their parents will move, or their schedules will change, or they’ll give in to peer pressure or just naturally drift off into other things. Who knows, maybe it will be the soccer moms who drive them away. But right now I have them. Right now I can show these girls how to hold their ground on the field and in the world. The Volvo seems a small price to pay for that.
Heidi Raykeil is the author of “Confessions of a Naughty Mommy: How I Found My Lost Libido” (Seal Press, 2006) and “Love in the Time of Colic: A New Parents Guide to Getting it on Again” (Collins, 2009).
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My Last Goal
By Patrick Redford
Soccer is hard. This seems like a truism, but unlike throwing a spiral or shooting a three-pointer, soccer doesn’t really require any serious specialized skills. It’s not a matter of how high you can jump, but how well you can keep your balance and hit a pass while running. The nuance behind it is hidden. What appears superficially intuitive is difficult in practice.
I learned this by getting my ass kicked on the field. As a child, I never evolved past the “run as fast as you can after the ball and kick it as far towards the goal as you can” stage in my development. I played intermittently on recreational teams with names like the Barbarians, Purple Cobras and Dragons, but I never did much besides run around like a headless chicken. This strategy worked during those years. The game was dumber. Nobody understood spacing or positioning and nobody could pull the defense’s strings because those strings didn’t really exist. You just sort of run and it either works or it doesn’t.
This fizzled when I was fifteen or so. I started playing basketball and getting into age-appropriate hobbies like music and apathy. My latent soccer interest didn’t find its catalyst until the 2009 Confederations Cup, when the United States shocked Spain and then held a 2-0 lead against Brazil until the clock struck midnight and they turned back into pumpkins. It was as organic of a revival as possible. Until that tournament, I didn’t quite care about the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team beyond passing glances at their results and a vague affinity for Landon Donovan, because I (incorrectly) thought he was a one-time member of the Sacramento Knights, our city’s since-folded professional indoor soccer team. But I quickly threw myself behind the team and into the huge, complicated world of global soccer.
However, I made the critical mistake of thinking that because I watched a lot of soccer, I could play. A year after the Confederations Cup woke me up, I moved to Berkeley for college and started playing intramurals. I started as a goalie, which didn’t work out well, but I was more successful there than in my spells as an emergency utility man off the bench. Against college-age competition, most of whom had played for years, my inexperience was exposed. I gave the ball away all over the field, fumbled defensive assignments, and loved it all regardless. I was learning slowly, but I had discovered the fun in soccer’s freedom. I also tasted the bitter frustration of personally costing my team a game when I mishit a clearance with my shin and gave up the goal that sunk our squad out of the IM semifinals.
The next semester, I moved out of goal and onto the field. I tried to play striker, where I was most effective as a decoy, running away from the ball and trying to drag defenders with me. I was improving, running into my own teammates less and successfully passing to them more. I found the natural fluidity of elite players impossible to replicate, but I ground out a steady niche by taking enough lumps and learning from them. This is how it works for almost everything: You learn by making a big mess, unmaking it, and repeating the process until there isn’t a mess anymore.
Last month, I played my last intramural game ever. We were a player short—because assembling more than half a dozen stressed-out college students involves trying to shift priorities away from schoolwork and light substance abuse—but our deficiency was never exposed. Five minutes in, our goalie came up on a set piece and managed to score with an empty net behind him. Then the game got weirder somehow. I stole the ball on the left flank, played it into the middle, ran towards the goal, controlled the return pass, closed my eyes, swung for goal and watched the ball nestle into the back of the net. Goal. It was my first intramural goal, after three-plus years of building a game from the ground up. It felt like all the things pros say it feels like, even in that small-scale moment. I kissed our team badge, the Tapatio logo, and got back on defense, grinning.
Ten minutes later, it happened again. The first goal was surreal and the second one simply doubled down on the absurdity. I tried to play it cool and pretend I’d been there before, but I couldn’t keep it in. After a few more near misses, the final whistle blew and our season ended with a raucous 3-2 win.
Graduation comes on with a whimper, not necessarily a bang. You finish finals, then everyone just sort of spirals out in different directions. For all the diffuse unspooling of growing up and trying to figure out how to convincingly pretend to be an adult, it was invigorating to finish a small facet of college as emphatically as I was able to. I took my cleats off and looked out over the campus, a campus I no longer belonged to, and watched the sun dip into the Pacific Ocean.
Patrick Redford lives, writes and eats tacos in Oakland, California.
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